Wednesday Women: Considering conference tournaments

The Cornell Big Red women's ice hockey team competes against Harvard on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020 in Lynah Rink in Ithaca, NY. (Darl Zehr/Cornell Athletics)
Lindsay Browning could be a Patty Kazmaier Top-3 Finalist. (Photo: Darl Zehr/Cornell Athletics)

Arlan: Quite a lot has happened since our last column. With the exception of the CHA, the regular season has been completed. That means that playoff seedings have been established in ECAC Hockey, Hockey East, and the WCHA, and the seasons are over for Rensselaer, Brown, Dartmouth and Union in the ECAC, and Merrimack and Holy Cross in HEA. None of these teams had winning percentages as high as .300 in either their leagues or overall, and nobody was within three games of a playoff berth, so the writing has been on the wall for a while now.

Rensselaer in particular suffered through a painful campaign. The Engineers did not earn a point in conference play, with their only somewhat positive result being a tie at Holy Cross. If anyone wondered why Lovisa Selander merited Patty Kazmaier Award top-10 recognition last year, they need look no farther than this drop from being a playoff team in her senior season.

You’ve always had an affinity for the sport’s underdogs; do you have any lifeline to offer the Engineers and their fans looking forward?

Nicole: I can only imagine how dreary things feel right now for RPI fans. After the high of the wins they got with Selander in net, this is particularly harsh. For me, the takeaway is that they didn’t get blown out every game. There were a couple of games where they gave up five goals, but for the most part, they lost some winnable games. The Engineers have to figure out how to get more pucks on net and score more goals. It’s ok that they’re going to give up two or three goals a game, they just have to have the offense to score at least that many, as well. But for me, the silver lining is that they played in a number of close games. I don’t think it will take a massive amount of improvement to be able to put more games in the win and tie columns. In February alone they played two goal games with ranked Princeton and Harvard, losing 3-1 each time. Bouncing back from the winless season won’t be easy, but it also shouldn’t be a Herculean task. I’m certain that doesn’t make anyone feel much better right now, but having something to look forward to will usually ease the pain a bit. 

Arlan: The NEWHA has completed not just its regular season but its tournament as well. That league’s champion was a surprise. After losing the first six games of its inaugural season by an aggregate score of 46-6, Long Island University rose from the ashes to finish fourth in the six-team circuit. The Sharks proved to be quick learners, as the defense that started out so leaky didn’t allow a goal in the postseason. Kenzie Harmison was unbeatable in shutting out three straight foes, highlighted by a 41-save whitewashing of season champ Sacred Heart in the semifinal. 

LIU’s task was made easier in the final, as it came up against weary Saint Anselm, which needed five overtimes and 127:24, the longest women’s hockey game in NCAA history, to vanquish Franklin Pierce. The Hawks were unable to kill off the last minute of a major penalty versus LIU, and it proved to be the only goal in the final.

What was your reaction to LIU making its debut a championship season, as well as the grit displayed by the Hawks and the Ravens in Saturday’s marathon?

Nicole: That marathon game was something else and I wish more people would have been around to watch it. It was fun to see the few people on Twitter who were watching the game get excited and into the game as it progressed. 

LIU did two things right – they grew over the season to peak at the right time and they played an uncomplicated game after Saturday’s long semi-final for St. Anselm. They were patient with the puck and took opportunities when they were there, but didn’t try to force anything. And they were calm on defense. St. Anselm was peppering the net and the Sharks did such a good job of shutting them down. Having a goalie that went the tournament without letting in a goal also doesn’t hurt – just ask Wisconsin. 

NEWHA has been driving women’s college hockey growth in recent years and this tournament helped the conference’s profile and women’s hockey overall. Having a brand new program and the fourth seed in their tournament win the title shows anything is possible. I was skeptical about the idea of a mixed DI/DII conference. If they hadn’t already won me over over the course of this season, these two games would have done it.

Arlan: I mentioned that the CHA had some regular-season business to finish. The race comes down to Meryhurst and Robert Morris, as is often the case, with the Lakers owning a one-point edge and the tiebreaker. Mercyhurst looked vulnerable when it lost to last-place Lindenwood in the Lakers’ first game of February. Since then, they’re unbeaten in their last five games, including a series win over the Colonials and a sweep of third-place Syracuse. The offense carried the Lakers by scoring 16 goals over the middle three games of that stretch, but they bookended it with 1-0 shutout wins. 

Both contenders finish on the road. Mercyhurst travels to Penn State, while RMU visits Syracuse. Do you think that Mercyhurst is demonstrating that it can do whatever it takes to take the crown, or does at least one more plot twist still await in this battle?

Nicole: If history is anything to go by, then I assume there are plenty of plot twists still to come. The past few years have shown that chaos is more likely than any one team separating themselves in the CHA. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, obviously, but I’m sure it’s frustrating for fans and coaches alike. No one team has really been able to take control and pull away, so I don’t think there’s a reason to think that will start now. 

Emma Nuutinen is the type of player that can take control of a weekend, though and I don’t know if Penn State can keep her in check.Overall Mercyhurst hasn’t been able to find consistent play and there’s a pretty significant drop off between the first line and the rest of the squad.

Robert Morris has a few more offensive weapons, but three of their top six scorers are blue liners, which usually doesn’t translate well to long-term success. Jaycee Gebhard has put together an incredible career for the Colonials and I assume any success this weekend, in the CHA tournament and – should they make it – in the NCAA tournament would center around her. She brings an extra level and a lot of creativity for Robert Morris and if she can find time and space against Syracuse, she’ll make sure that Mercyhurst is still in the conversation for the title on Saturday. 

Arlan: One race that wound up tighter than I expected was Wisconsin’s WCHA banner. The Badgers claimed at least a share of the league with their win in Duluth on Friday, but they required a Houdini-like act on Sunday to come from two goals down to the Bulldogs in the final minute and earn a tie, winning the WCHA outright.

I feel like I’m always asking you to explain UW, but this just isn’t the formula that we’ve come to expect from Mark Johnson over the years. “Get a lead and hold it” has been replaced by “fall behind and try to rally.” The Badgers have yielded the first goal in their last five games and have managed to win only one of them. The good news is that an offense that had gone AWOL during Wisconsin’s mini skid was back this weekend. 

More concerning is likely the defense. After not allowing more than three goals in any game last season and only in the double-overtime contest that concluded the season prior, the Badgers have now been victimized for four or more goals three times this season. Senior goaltender Kristen Campbell has been dealing with some type of injury that has likely hampered her effectiveness, as her save percentage continues to drift downward.

Is there reason for concern in Madison, as Wisconsin looks to repeat its WCHA and NCAA championships from last year? Or do you think that the Badgers wobbles aren’t as troublesome as they might appear, and they’ll come out of the quarterfinal bye firing on all cylinders?

Nicole: I absolutely think there’s a reason for concern, not the least of which is that they’re playing the worst hockey of their year heading into the one-and-done part of the season. Coaches talk about a slow build up to March and peaking at the right time and Wisconsin is doing the exact opposite. 

The defense has been an issue all year and that’s not changed in recent weeks. There were times this season where they seemed to improve – or at least find ways to mitigate the blue line weaknesses, but that came out of the offense stepping up and possessing the puck and controlling the game. What’s gone wrong the past few weeks is that not only was the defense not great, but the offense disappeared as well. And I don’t just mean scoring goals. Everything looked like a struggle and everyone’s timing was just a bit off.

So the passes were missing, nothing was crisp and their opponents were getting more opportunities for quick breaks and time in the zone. In a post-game interview after the Ohio State series and in an intermission interview in Duluth, Abby Roque explained goals or assists she had as coming after she’d missed a player on the previous play and feeling like she needed to make up for it and that really feels like a good summation of how the past few games have gone. The Badgers really, really need to not be playing from behind. They managed just one goal in their loss to Mankato and in their loss and tie to Ohio State and they were behind early in each of those games.

I think one of the bright lights for the Badgers is that they continue to rise to the occasion when necessary. The 3-on-3 wins over Ohio State and UMD. The last-minute goals in Duluth. Obviously the better solution is to not get into those situations in the first place, but I think those moments are the ones that show the fight of this team and keep fans from wanting to throw up their hands in frustration and give up on this season. 

Arlan: If Wisconsin looks vulnerable of late, Cornell, the team that replaced it atop the rankings, does not. There is a lot to like about the Big Red. They have the country’s best scoring defense and best penalty kill, backed by Patty Kazmaier Award finalist Lindsay Browning, who leads the country in goals against average, win percentage, shutouts, and is a close second in save percentage. 

Offensively, the goal production continues to climb from year to year. Eleven skaters have double-digit points, including eight with more than 20 and three above 30. Veterans abound in key positions. Like Browning, nine of those top 11 scorers are upperclassmen, including the top five, and six of the eight who have topped 20 points are seniors. 

This is a team built to win now, and that’s what they’ve been doing. It has been nearly three months since Cornell’s only defeat in Columbus. First up in the postseason is a quarterfinal series versus St. Lawrence. The Saints fell by a single goal when they visited Ithaca earlier this month, although a late extra-attacker goal likely made that contest look closer than it was.

How do you perceive the Big Red? Are they a team with a destiny to become the second program from the East to hoist the NCAA trophy, or have they taken advantage of a league that isn’t quite as strong as it was in recent years?

Nicole: Cornell certainly looks like the team to beat. They’ve been building to this. It’s been a sort of quiet and methodical couple of years where they’ve improved and learned from the previous season and it’s culminated in this squad with postseason experience, but also the knowledge of what it means to just miss out. They’ve got top players at every position and it’s difficult to pinpoint many weaknesses. 

As you mentioned, they’ve steadily built up the offensive side of their game, which I think was missing in recent years. But as you also point out, the ECAC wasn’t as strong as it has been, so I don’t know how to put that increased offensive output in perspective yet. Did they improve a lot or did they improve a bit and also their conference is not as good this year?

My biggest question for them overall is if they can still average more than three goals a game when the defense is also being tested. Their two games with Clarkson ended in 1-1 ties. They rebounded with a strong performance in their 5-1 win over OSU in game two of their series, but lost game one 3-1. But overall, as strong as the Big Red defense is, I’m not sure they’ve really been pushed anywhere near their limit much yet this year. When the pressure is on in the defensive zone, will there be any hesitation on the part of the forwards? After so many years of being defensive-minded, will they still push the puck and take chances up front, or will they tend to fall back more as I think is their instinct? I have no idea, but I think it’s something to keep an eye on. 

Arlan: As a whole, I do think that the ECAC quarterfinals could produce some upsets, certainly in games and perhaps a series or two. While I think that SLU is stronger than we sometimes see with a No. 8 seed, Cornell’s defensive strength makes the Big Red unlikely to fall over the course of a series. 

Second-seeded Princeton has put together a strong second half, losing only to Clarkson, but Quinnipiac has been solid in 2020 as well. The Bobcats are 10-5 in the new year, and four of the five losses were by a single goal. Teams that always hang around are dangerous come playoff time, when favorites can start to feel the pressure when games are undecided as the minutes tick by. Quinnipiac has an interesting mix of veterans, such as seniors in forward Sarah-Ève Coutu-Godbout and goalie Abbie Ives, and sophomore Lexie Adzija and rookie Sadie Peart, the team’s first and third-leading scorers, respectively. If nothing else, I’m sure that the Bobcats would like to earn their 20th victory of the season.

In the No. 6 at No. 3 matchup, Colgate visits Clarkson. Early on, the Raiders fell by a goal in Potsdam, and the two teams played to a tie this month. When I watched Colgate opening weekend, I thought that their speed and quickness in transition could make the Raiders a tough opponent later in the year, and you just know that they’d like some payback for the championship loss in 2018. If the Golden Knights aren’t healthy, this could go either way.

The series hosted by the fourth seed is wild for just about every conference in any year. The ECAC has Yale at Harvard, two teams that finished higher than I would have expected at the start of the year, and I’d guess that I’m not the only one. Both previous meetings were Harvard wins, but they occurred in the first month and a half of the Ivy League schedule. The Bulldogs, under new coach Mark Bolding, have likely evolved a great deal since those games, and Harvard has undoubtedly grown as well. Often in Harvard games, the analysis concludes with something like, “The Crimson have Lindsay Reed.” Do they? She played both of the Yale games, but she has seen the net irregularly of late, and her statistics for the season rank in the lower half. Neither of these teams have won a playoff round in recent years, so there will be hunger on both sides.

What are you focused on in the ECAC?

Nicole: This is probably the most interesting tournament from top to bottom. While it’s likely that Cornell will sweep, I also think St. Lawrence can give them some fits. When you look at the teams other top seeds are playing, this really is a tough matchup for the Big Red. I wouldn’t really be shocked by any team beating another here – it feels really wide open, which makes it a lot of fun. 

I think Yale is definitely a sleeper team. They’ve just continued to improve and gain confidence as the year went on and they tied the school record for wins in a season and set a new school record for conference wins in a season. The best part about the conference tournaments are teams like Yale who have nothing to lose and everything to prove. And if anyone has a handle on Harvard and what to expect any time they hit the ice, I’d love to hear it. They feel like such a wildcard and I am no closer to figuring them out than I was when I watched them in Nashville at Thanksgiving.

I also think that Colgate/Clarkson series could be seriously interesting. Clarkson is very much a bubble team right now. Beating the Golden Knights would be revenge, but keeping them out of the NCAA tournament would be some pretty sweet balm for the Raiders. 

Slowing down Elizabeth Giguere is no easy task, but they kept her to a single assist in that tie on February 1st. That will be the key for Colgate, since I think they match up well with Clarkson most everywhere else. 

Arlan: In Hockey East, Vermont doesn’t have the consistency in goal to make an upset of Northeastern feasible. I watched portions of the second game in Vermont in January, where the Catamounts stayed with the Huskies for a period, before a six-goal second frame blew the game open and NU won, 10-2. Given UVM went winless in three games versus Holy Cross since then, this should be a Northeastern sweep.

Maine is unpredictable enough that the Black Bears could take a game from Boston University. However, I don’t see them as being able to play a complete series and advance. Maine would have better prospects if it had been able to climb up to a quarterfinal versus Providence or Boston College, but the Terriers have been too steady this season, particularly since mid November. BU is 17-2-3 after losing to BC, and should reach the semifinals at a minimum.

The good news for Providence is that it finds itself facing New Hampshire in the quarterfinals, an opponent against which it won the season series, something that it failed to do against other possible foes like Maine and UConn. Unfortunately for the Friars, both of their wins over UNH came in Durham; they lost handily in the only meeting on home ice. PC’s sweep over the Wildcats started them on an 11-game finish in the conference where they went 4-5-2, with the only wins coming over Holy Cross and BC. Providence has the look of a team that is vulnerable to an upset, but UNH doesn’t look poised to spring one.

Boston College started off 8-0-1 in HEA and went 6-11-1 in the league the rest of the way. UConn started the Eagles’ slide, and now they get a shot at some revenge. The Huskies weren’t exactly a house on fire in Hockey East either, as they were just 8-10-1 down the stretch in league play. I don’t know that any result in this series would surprise me, which is often the case when No. 4 meets No. 5. The Eagles were two games over .500 at home, which suggests a slight edge, but Connecticut was also two games over .500 on the road. Flip a coin. I’d suggest a bunch of overtimes, but I don’t know that BC has the defense to make that likely.

What do you see differently here?

Nicole: Not much. I agree that Northeastern and Boston University are probably locks to move on. But I think everything else from there on down is up for grabs. Both New Hampshire and Providence have shown flashes of brilliance throughout the season and then done worse than you’d have expected at times. Thank goodness we’re no longer picking games and keeping a tally, because I’m certain I’d get all of these wrong. I’m saying it’s all up in the air, but this will probably go straight seeds and make me wonder why I spend all weekend watching women’s hockey streams when it clearly doesn’t make me any smarter. 

Connecticut has seemed to be the thorn in Boston College’s side this year, so it seems fitting that the Eagles’ season hinges on taking down the Huskies. BC’s season really does feel broken into Before UConn and After UConn. Those early games showed things weren’t what they seemed and that this was not going to be the type of season we’d come to expect from Boston College. 

Looking ahead, I’ll be particularly interested to see what happens if or when Northeastern and Boston University face off. BU will likely be playing for their life and Northeastern has now beaten them four times this season (I know the Beanpot was a tie, but the Huskies got the trophy and the Terriers didn’t, which is really all that matters in this context). I don’t think the margin between those two teams is actually that wide and playing for your season is an awfully big motivator, but that’s for a future conversation.

Arlan: For the fifth time in Jim Scanlan’s six seasons at Bemidji State, we have the Beavers meeting Minnesota-Duluth in a quarterfinal where one of the teams is the four seed in the WCHA. The teams have each advanced twice, although last year’s series win by the Bulldogs was the only time where home ice was advantageous. UMD will hope that it continues to be, as it was during the regular season when both teams swept at home. BSU is well-rested after being off last weekend, while the Bulldogs played a demanding series that included Sunday’s overtime tie with Wisconsin. This looks to be about 60/40 in UMD’s favor; in any case, it is by far the best chance for a WCHA upset in the quarterfinals.

Minnesota State tied Ohio State twice in Mankato in October. Apparently, the Buckeyes learned from those games, as they won handily both times in Columbus. I watched the Mavericks last weekend when they only scored once in Minneapolis, and it is safe to say that their best chance to advance is by playing games with scores like 2-1 or 1-0. When a team’s points leader is a defender, as sophomore Anna Wilgren is for MSU, it doesn’t want to get into a track meet. The Mavericks have defeated OSU once in each of the previous three years, and it’s possible they will get one win this weekend, but the top line gives Ohio State a huge advantage.

In the final quarterfinal, the rivalry of I-94 neighbors St. Cloud State and Minnesota has not been kind to the Huskies. They did earn a tie a couple of years ago, but their last outright win came back in 2010. Since then, there have been a lot of wins by three-goal margins for the Gophers, with the occasional game that is closer or gets out of hand. SCSU has to find a way to keep the scoreboard from changing much, because they can’t win if it becomes a scoring contest. The Huskies best bet is to try to extend games and hope that Minnesota’s lack of depth up front becomes a factor, as the Gophers had a pair of third-line forwards who saw very limited action last weekend due to injury.

Do you see any intrigue beyond Bemidji at UMD, or maybe none at all?

Nicole: During the Wisconsin/UMD series last weekend, the play-by-play guy kept talking about UMD having a possibility at an at-large NCAA bid, which I just really don’t think is the case. Even if BU,Clarkson and Ohio State go out in the first round of their conference tournaments while UMD makes it to the WCHA final game, the Bulldogs aren’t in. The only way Minnesota Duluth makes the NCAA tournament is by winning the WCHA tournament and auto-bid.

I don’t know if that adds to the intrigue – at this point all the teams should be playing to win the whole thing, but I thought it was interesting to hang on to that hope. I don’t even think a win or two over Wisconsin last weekend would have made a difference. 

Bemidji, particularly, is a team you don’t want to have to come from behind on. The Bulldogs have some very talented and creative forwards in Sydney Brodt, Gabbie Hughes, Anna Klein and Ryleigh Houston. And the WCHA tournament has always seemed to bring out the best in Maddie Rooney. I wouldn’t count UMD out if they make it to the Final Faceoff, but the path there won’t be an easy one. 

Minnesota State has been a problem for Ohio State at times, but I don’t think that continues in the postseason. One of the best improvements for the Buckeyes since Nadine Muzerall took over is their confidence. They’d probably call it swagger. Regardless, there’s too much talent and ‘tude on this team to go out in the first round.

Arlan: We did pretty well at picking the Patty Kazmaier top 10, but I think that is where my success will end. It seems like the committee can go in a number of different directions to choose the top three and the award winner. Daryl Watts seems to be pretty much a lock to make the top three given her point total, but there is some sentiment that Abby Roque is just as vital to Wisconsin’s success. Could both make the top three? Possibly, but I could also see a top three of Watts, Elizabeth Giguère, and Sarah Fillier, or Watts, Giguère, and Lindsay Browning. It could also go differently if coaches on the committee support Roque over Watts.

We can hold off on predicting a winner until later in the season, even though the voting takes place this week, but what do you expect to see for a top three?

Nicole: For those who don’t know, the Patty voting goes in a few rounds. From, “The award selection process begins in February, when NCAA Division I women’s ice hockey head coaches are asked to nominate players for the award. Players who are nominated by two or more coaches are then placed on an official ballot, which is sent back to the coaches to vote for the top 10 finalists.”

Then a 13-person committee has a conference call where each of the top-10 women are discussed in alphabetical order. The committee usually has nine coaches from across all conferences, three media members and a representative from USA Hockey. 

The thing is, those coaches are kind of busy doing their own things while every other team is playing, which isn’t conducive to nuanced discussions on a player’s role – that’s part of why I think statistics seem to play such a big role in deciding who makes the Top Ten and Finalist lists. At most, a coach might face a specific player four times a year before the conference call. 

All that is a long way to get to the point that while Abby Roque is a more well-rounded player that’s more vital to Wisconsin than Watts is, I’m not sure how many people on the committee know that. A lot of how the three Wisconsin players end up ranked will depend on who’s representing the WCHA and how that person decides to talk about the nominated players. 

I don’t think both Roque and Watts will make the top three, but that’s just my gut. I think playing with Team USA this year and getting named to their World Championship roster on Tuesday certainly helps people understand that Roque has value beyond her point total (like her success in the face off circle, for one). 

While Browning’s numbers are better, I feel like there’s an argument about Frankel being more important to her team’s success with a less talented defense in front of her than Browning has. If we see a goalie make the top three, I’m not sure we can assume it’ll be Browning. I personally would argue harder for Jaime Bourbonnais than Browning if we want to award Cornell’s defensive success, which isn’t a dig on Browning, but the Patty tends to overlook blue liners overall and they’d do worse than to recognize Bourbonnais. 

The votes also usually tend to follow the individual conference awards. I think the logic is that those are voted on by the people who see those players the most, so the choices hold a lot of sway with the committee members who don’t have that opportunity. And no one wants to put forward a player that their own league thinks isn’t the best or snub someone who does win those awards. 

I think we’ll see Giguere and a Wisconsin player and I’m totally unsure who gets the third spot. Over the years the committee has seemed to want to reward top teams, so I think the third spot goes to Browning or Bourbonnais.